Aztecs teach Pack a valuable lesson writes Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Aztecs teach Pack a valuable lesson writes Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Eric Musselman got out-coached Wednesday night at San Diego State. The Wolf Pack players got out-played. The Aztecs were clearly the best team at Viejas Arena. The only other time those three things have happened this season to the Wolf Pack in 26 games was Jan. 5 at New Mexico. San Diego State and New Mexico just happen to be the only two other arenas (along with Nevada's Lawlor Events Center) in the Mountain West that average 10,000-plus crowds. Coincidence? Not likely. "We have to step up on a big stage and play," Musselman said after the 65-57 loss to the Aztecs. "We've played in front of two really great crowds at New Mexico and here and we didn't play like we are capable of." The loss on Wednesday is a reminder this is college basketball. College basketball players are affected by crowds. They feed off affection. They get confused by hatred. We see it each time the Pack takes the floor at Lawlor, where they almost always look like the Golden State Warriors. We saw the reverse on Wednesday. That's all.

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San Diego State used an aggressive man-to-man defense and the Pack, which had been averaging 92 points a game over its last six games, looked like Jared Goff in the Super Bowl, shooting 34 percent from the floor, 28 percent on threes and 60 percent on free throws. The Aztecs also spread the floor on offense, didn't call any plays from the bench, and simply attacked the basket. The Aztecs weren't great on offense — the Aztecs are never great on offense — but they always seemed to get to the basket when they needed to the most. Musselman and the Pack never found any answers. It happens. They're allowed one bad game a month.

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Jordan Caroline, who can usually glare at an opponent and flex his biceps before the opening tip and then do what he wants for the next 40 minutes, didn't intimidate the Aztecs' Matt Mitchell and Aguek Arop. "Matt and AG are as tough as they come," Aztecs point guard Devin Watson said. "They knew (Caroline) likes to crash (the boards) after every shot. I kept telling Matt, 'Caroline is going to go in (to the paint). Hit him after every shot.'" Caroline finished with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting.

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Caroline has struggled on offense ever since he scored 40 points against Colorado State on Feb. 6. In the three games since his 40-point effort, when he went 6-of-8 on threes, Caroline has scored just 34 points while shooting 1-of-12 on threes. He was 11-of-19 from the floor against Colorado State with six offensive rebounds. Since then in three games he has been 13-of-39 from the floor with three offensive rebounds. His eight points at San Diego State ended his streak of 38 games in a row with 10 or more points. That's what happens when you score 40 in a game. You become a target.

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Caroline, unfortunately, wasn't the only Pack player to struggle on offense. Nobody in silver and blue played well on offense. Caleb Martin scored more than a third of the Pack's points (20) but even he missed 7-of-10 threes. Tre'Shawn Thurman didn't score a point in 20 minutes. Cody Martin had five points in 40 minutes and was 1-of-7 from the floor. Jazz Johnson had five points in 31 minutes off the bench. The Pack starters were 1-of-13 for six points combined in the first half. If the Pack loses in the Mountain West or NCAA tournament (note we said "if" and not "when"), this is how it's going to happen.

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The Aztecs' defensive strategy was pretty basic. "We just had a body in front of a body," Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. "The Martins (Caleb and Cody) are dynamic getting to the basket. So we built a wall. We let them see a lot of bodies in front of them. And then you hope they miss the three. We just tried to keep them in front of us the best we could." The Pack responded by missing 18-of-25 threes. They also were just 12-of-31 on shots inside the 3-point circle. They looked like a family from Cleveland in mid-February that had spent too much time in the sun all day on a San Diego beach. The Aztecs just didn't sit back and watch the Pack shoot, like the rest of the Mountain West teams tend to do. They contested everything the Pack tried. They glared at the Pack and flexed their biceps. And the Pack, with 12,414 fans yelling at them, didn't respond.

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The Aztecs are the only team in the Mountain West that can match up with the Wolf Pack athletically. That's why the Aztecs could even dream about playing a man-to-man defense. The Aztecs are as tough as the Pack, play as hard as the Pack and never back down like the Pack. Stick 12,000-plus fans behind them and, well, the Pack learned a valuable lesson on Wednesday. "That's a good team," San Diego State's Jeremy Hemsley said of the Pack. "They got some dogs over there. We have to play like dogs because that's how teams (like Nevada) are. They're dogs. I got respect for everybody over there."

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Musselman is now 2-6 against San Diego State. He's 0-3 against the Aztecs in San Diego and 0-2 against them in Las Vegas in the Mountain West tournament. Musselman's Pack teams have scored 57 or fewer points in just six of his 136 games as Pack coach and four of those games have come against San Diego State. If you were looking for some drama in this Pack regular season, well, you now have it. The Aztecs come to Lawlor on March 9. It will be Senior Night when, among others, Caleb and Cody Martin and Caroline play their last home game. They'll play like their shorts are on fire. Musselman, who needs to send a message to the Aztecs in case he sees them again in Las Vegas in the conference tourney, will coach like his hair's on fire. Lawlor will be on fire. The guess here is the Pack will win by 20.